Saturday, July 23, 2016

Shakespeare and Italy 13 - Sabbioneta Athens Duke's Oak

8A. This chapter presents discoveries from Roe’s side trip to Sabbioneta, near Mantua. He had not even heard of it until a fellow traveler mentioned it to him at breakfast. The city’s unique architecture, being all designed according to the “Mannerist” style, was meant for the use of Vespasiano Gonzaga. Roe was given a tourist brochure when he arrived, that described the old city as “Little Athens”. This Gonzaga valued learning very highly and so he was known for “inviting the erudite among both Italy’s, and other western Europe’s, nobility and intelligentsia for a visit”, thus accounting for its second name or “Little Athens”. As a gathering place for scholars and intellectuals it would naturally attract the attention of many learned visitors from England as well

By chance, toward the end of his tour there, Roe heard the guide mention that the main gate passage was also known as “il ‘Quercia dei Duca”. Since the word “Quercia” wasn’t familiar to him he asked about it and was told it meant “Oak”, so the gate was “The Duke’s Oak”. And as you know the comic rustic characters putting on Pyramus and Thisbe, met to rehearse, per Quince, “At the Duke’s Oak”. 

So the setting of the play is in “Athens” and there are many references to it or to “Athenians”. However, there is no mention of Greece, Greek, Grecians, Attica or such. There is actually no mention in the play that the Duke’s Oak refers to a large Oak tree in the woods in Athens, Greece. But with all the other Italian references, especially peculiarly accurate ones, and such that only a select minority in the audience might recognize, the weight of the evidence supports this as another subtle hint of Italian knowledge insight. The reason the town’s entrance way was called “The Duke’s Oak” was that the passage opened to an oak forest where Gonzaga had a hunting ground. 

A final discovery Roe made there was that there are a couple references to “temple” where the play’s marriages would take place. Roe found that there is a church in Sabbioneta, and it is in fact, called “the Temple”. And though modern editions of the play have “temple” with a non-capitalized “t”, the Quarto and First Folio have “Temple” with the “T” capitalized, as it would be for a proper noun. 

The discoveries taken together, along with knowing that Vespasiano Gonzaga used Sabbioneta as a type of then modern day “Athenian academy” for intellectual and cultural seminars, supports the case that the author either personally visited this town in Italy or had unusually intimate knowledge of parts of the country and culture not available to even most native Italians. Only the well-travelled and culturally advanced, and with connections to the elite and powerful, would most likely visit such a place.


  1. Pierre Ambiose published the first bio on Bacon 1631
    Chief interest in this book of Pierre Amboise : which incidently had no engraved title page to recommend it : lies in the fact that in this contemporary work we are told that, thanks to the generosity of his father, Francis was sent on his travels at an early age, and that he went both into Itlay and Spain, especially with a view to learn the laws and customs of the people and their different forms of government. Pierre Amboise says that these travels occupied "quelques annees de sa jeunesse", but does not mention the years in which they occurred.
    It appears from the "Privileg du Roi", which in France secures the author's copyright, that Amboise's original intention was to include in the book some letters of Bacon, but unfortunately that intention was not carried out. Mr. Begley infers that it was probably these letters which informed him of Bacon's early travels.
    But from whatever source Pierre Amboise obtained his information we have in his book (a copy of which is preserved in the British Museum) the unqualified statement that Bacon went both to Italy and Spain, and, touching the veracity of that statement I should say that there was no inducement to Pierre Amboise to invent it

  2. Thanks for your comment. I'm aware of Begley's thoughts and of Amboise's bio. Unfortunately, a couple of letters have been found in recent years from someone at Gray's Inn that mention Bacon's excellent work there and this occurred during the time we speculated that he was most likely to have traveled in Italy, if in fact he had. So unless we can reasonably find another time period he could have traveled there we need to drop that argument. This isn't fatal at all to the Baconian argument since he had many other ways to be well acquainted with Italy.